ASHBURN, Va. (AP) Mixing and matching safeties since late last season, the Washington Redskins have no choice but to use a safety-by-committee approach in their must-win regular season finale.
With their playoff hopes riding on beating the New York Giants on Sunday - as long as the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions don't tie - the Redskins are likely to start one converted cornerback and a Week 1 healthy scratch at the safety positions. Season-ending injuries to David Bruton, DeAngelo Hall and veteran addition Donte Whitner mean Washington will lean heavily on Will Blackmon, Duke Ihenacho and even special teams ace Deshazor Everett against the Giants.
The Redskins put Whitner on injured reserve and brought back safety Josh Evans for a crash course in advance heading into the pivotal matchup with the Giants.
''We'll roll with Duke and Will and Deshazor,'' defensive coordinator Joe Barry said Thursday. ''Josh Evans came in. He was with us for a few weeks earlier in the year so he's got a little bit of recall. But those guys have got to roll. If you're on the field, you're a starter and you've got to play like one.''
Barry describes Blackmon, a cornerback for nine seasons, as a rookie adjusting to a new position. Ihenacho, who broke his wrist in the 2015 opener, re-inherited the starting strong safety job after the injuries to Bruton and Whitner and is still trying to master the basics in his second full NFL season.
Coach Jay Gruden believes Ihenacho plays as hard as anyone on defense and is improving with repetition. Now he'll be tasked with handling the Giants' running game and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz.
''Sometimes he does get in the wrong gap from time to time or he'll miss a tackle, but for the most part you love the energy that he plays with,'' Gruden said. ''It's an important position for him to overtake. It's a very important position, that safety role. It's in the run fits and pass coverage. Sometimes you're playing two-deep, sometimes you're in the C-gap, D-gap, sometimes you're blitzing. So he's got a lot on his plate and we feel he can handle it.''
Ihenacho is only 27, but he has been a source of knowledge for Blackmon in his transition from cornerback to safety.
''Coming into the season Duke was our only true safety,'' Blackmon said. ''Last year he had the outright starting job before he hurt his wrist, and that was before I came here. He just fits in there naturally, athletic. He's an aggressive guy, aggressive safety. He's built like a free, plays like a strong.''
One thing's for certain: Without Whitner, Ihenacho is going to play a lot, as will Blackmon and Everett. Signed in early October, Whitner provided the stability at the safety position after 10 seasons with Buffalo, San Francisco and Cleveland.
A quadriceps injury from the Redskins' season-saving victory in Chicago took Whitner out of the equation.
''Losing Donte, any time you lose a veteran presence like that, it has an effect,'' Barry said. ''Donte was a guy that's played a lot of football, that was smart, was able to do a lot of things above the neck pre-snap and adjustments and formations. The guy has seen and played a lot of football. It's a shame that he got banged up.''
Rookie Su'a Cravens would've gotten a look at safety in Week 17 if healthy, but an upper-arm injury is likely to keep him out. Blackmon has tried not to think about all the injuries on defense and specifically in the secondary but is confident in the Redskins' depth
''That's why we're built the way we're built,'' Blackmon said. ''That's probably why (general manager Scot McCloughan) built the team like this because everyone's versatile. When we played the Giants in Week 3, everyone went down and I had to go back to nickel. I haven't played a snap at nickel all year. We're just that kind of secondary.''
NOTES: Along with Cravens and CB Quinton Dunbar (concussion), OL Vinston Painter didn't practice Thursday with a calf injury. ... TE Jordan Reed was limited again with a sprained left shoulder, but Gruden said Reed looks good and is ''on the right track'' to play Sunday.
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